Tackling is part of the game and helps a child to build self-esteem
There are risks in contact sports, but coached in the right manner, the benefits are there for all to see
Imust admit I found the calls this week to ban tackling in schoolboy rugby to be thoroughly disheartening. As a teacher of 20-odd years, I know the enormous value of coaching contact sports – not just rugby – and in my opinion the positives massively outweigh the negatives. Not just in terms of health but in terms of confidence and self-esteem.
Yes, there are risks attached to rugby. As there are with all contact sports. You will get the odd broken bone. And, yes, children are getting bigger and tackle techniques have changed, particularly at the elite end.
The introduction of the new breakdown laws has made it even more desirable to hit squarer, chestto-chest rather than side on.
I understand the risk of head injury. Concussion was something that, in my day, we did not fully understand and to which we probably attached too little importance. It is a serious issue.
But even allowing for all of that, my argument would be that if you teach the proper technique from the word go; if you progressively introduce children to contact, then you reduce the risk of injury to an acceptable level and you give children something far more important.
As with everything, it is about education. And it is about education from an early age. The argument that you should hold them back from contact until they are older is misguided. The older they are, the longer you leave it, the bigger they are and the more damage they can do, particularly if they have not developed the correct technique from a young age. There is less scope to manage the transition properly. In my opinion nine, 10, 11 years old is a perfect age to introduce tackling.
When I taught children, we would progress from kneeling-down tackling – with the head in the correct position behind the legs, using the shoulder to push – to walking pace, then jogging then finally sidestepping.
Tackle bags and shields are also an important part of the learning process, and continue to be so up to international level.
There are various other techniques which help to phase in tackling. Using a mat initially. Or getting children to go barefoot. Not having studded boots makes a huge difference to their confidence. The New Zealand method of grouping children in terms of their size and physical development rather than their age is just blindingly obvious and it amazes me that we do not do that more over here with the middleschool ages (11, 12, 13).
Clearly, tackling is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that is fine. No one should be forced to do it. But if done correctly, there is no reason that children should be getting unduly injured or quitting the sport because they are miserable. If they are it is the coaches who should be taking a long, hard look at themselves.
On the contrary, children should grow in confidence, and also become more disciplined and respectful. You learn how to deal with pain and fear. You become aware of your limitations. You learn the importance of technique and teamwork. It is all about instilling the correct technique and mindset.
As a small player myself – 5ft 10in and under 12 stone – I worked incredibly hard when I was coming through as a young fly-half and centre because I realised it was an area our opponents would try to exploit and I did not want them to think they would have an easier ride coming down my channel. I had to get it right or I would be trampled over. By the time I played for Headingley and later, for Scotland and the Lions, I think that paid off.
Of course, there are times when it will go wrong. I have had a few trips to A&E with children. But again I would argue that this can be a positive, for both the coach and the child. You do not leave them on their own – you care for them and they see that. There is mutual respect there and they learn what not to do the next time. Besides, an arm in a plaster cast used to be a badge of honour back in my day.
Fundamentally, I believe that tackling is a good healthy part of a broader sporting education. I’m a big believer in a multi-sport approach (I actually played rugby league up to the age of 11, and my first two loves were cricket and football). Physical contact is a natural part of that development process.When you walk out of the door there is danger everywhere. It is about how you manage that danger.
As I say, if taught right, I think the risks involved in tackling at school age are minimal, acceptable, certainly when you are dealing with children of a similar size rather than age. But it comes back to education. There is nothing worse than seeing a child put off for life because he or she has had a bad experience. But conversely – and I know this from experience – there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a child develop self-confidence and esteem because they have been properly taught. The real tragedy would be to outlaw a vital part of the game, one that can be such a positive one, purely because it cannot be guaranteed to be
When you walk out of the door there is danger wherever you look. It is about how you manage that danger
Child’s play: Nine, 10 or 11 years old is a good age at which to start instructing youngsters in the art of tackling